The Cell Phone Debacle and What it Should Tell Us

Over the weekend, news broke of conservative elements within the United Methodist Church attempting to sway votes at the General Conference by providing cell phones to international delegates from Africa and elsewhere.

On the one hand, this move might be passed off as simply the kind of politics that goes on during a conference like this. But I believe United Methodist moderates and progressives learned something else, more deeply disturbing: We got confirmation that, despite their public claims to be seeking unity, these conservative elements are seeking to control the church, and force an agenda that might well split our denomination.

First, here is an quote from a news story from United Methodist News Service:

“The Renewal and Reform Coalition created myriad conversations among delegates, church leaders and visitors after they learned that the Confessing Movement, Good News/Renew, Transforming Congregations and UMAction provided free cell phones to more than 150 African delegates to use during the General Conference. Some delegates and officials expressed concern that the coalition is trying to sway the votes of African delegates who are typically more conservative than their U.S. counterparts. They fear the coalition might use the phones to offer suggestions on how to vote on particular issues.”

The story goes on to describe how information distributed with the phones contained specific information on candidates for Judicial Council who clearly come from a theologically conservative position. As I understand it, this issue has been now forwarded to the Rules Committee of the General Conference.

You can read the entire UMIS story here.

UM Action Executive Director, Mark Tooley, obviously caught red-handed, offered these very defensive responses:

“Why are liberal church elites in the U.S. so intimidated by the empowerment of African and other international delegates? What are they so afraid of?

“When Africans speak their Biblical convictions, threatened liberal church bureaucrats call that ‘manipulation’.

“Patronizingly, United Methodist bureaucrats assume that African and Filipino delegates can be bought with a cell phone.

“These clueless church elites don’t understand the obvious. America evangelicals and Global South evangelicals support each other because of their common faith.”

Tooley’s comments are intended to throw the casual observer off the scent. This incident reveals little about international delegates. But! It reveals a great deal about groups like UMAction, Good News, and the IRD within the United Methodist Church.

It reveals a clear intend to divide the church along lines that would not be acceptable to either moderates or progressives within the American Church.

The real questions for delegates to the General Conference are:

What does this incident reveal about the agenda of the radical right within the United Methodist Church?

Why –at a time when all delegates are calling for unity and a new sense of common purpose– do they choose this form of secret caucusing, clearing meant to divide and destroy?

If these conservative leaders are so sure their views are within the mainstream of American Methodism, then why are they not simply caucusing with American progressives and moderates? Why go to such lengths to secretly sway the international vote?

Given this current debacle, and the shocking and divisive call for “split” that conservative leaders launched at the end of the last General Conference, how can conservative leaders assure us they are not actively working to undercut the effort by moderates and progressives to keep the church together?

Let me be clear: caucusing, using modern technologies like cell phones, is done by people in all sides of all issues within the UMC. It’s not the use of cell phones that is the issue, it’s the clear intent to sway a whole block of votes that is.

Tooley is actually right on one thing, thanks be to God: International delegates can think for themselves, even when they are treated paternalistically with cell phones and lists of “acceptable” candidates.

But the real story here not about those delegates. It’s about a truth many of us have feared for some time: that elements of the radical right in the Methodist Church have an agenda to keep control of the church by aligning themselves with international delegates.

Their leaders do not apparently wish to caucus in good faith on the issues before the Conference, but instead they seek to manipulate the vote through crass political means.

Let me be clear: I am not seeking to paint all, or even a majority, of conservatives at General Conference with this brush. Many are seeking to reach out and form coalitions with moderates and progressives. I have personally witnessed some powerful dialogue taking place between United Methodists on conviction. I am grateful and inspired by such things.

But the goals of the leaders of these radical right groups should be deeply troubling to all mainstream United Methodists.

So I issue this last plea to delegates to the Conference:

I urge you to see this as sign of the desperate need for real restructuring in the United Methodist Church. What is clearly needed is a restructuring that assures the conservative wing of our church cannot control our future life together. What is needed is a restructuring that gives real voice to the beauty of United Methodism’s cultural distinctiveness in every part of the world, including the United States.

I pray that moderates and progressives alike to use prayerful discernment on the issue of restructuring, so that the American church is not forever compromised by this radically conservative interest group.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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